, March 29th, 2011 13:12
Rolling Papers stands as Wiz Khalifa's first release on a major label, Atlantic Records, and follows no less than nine mixtapes and two albums and the popularity-boosting US No.1 'Black and Yellow'. All of the obligatory boxes for subject matter are ticked: drinking, rolling joints, hoes, money etc – it's a rap autopilot that engages all too often, with the only variety seeming to occur when these topics are interwoven: "meet a girl teach her how to roll papers..." You get the picture. This tendency to retread his own footsteps and revert back to the pop rap blueprint as drawn by Dre and Snoop Dogg is fine, just don't do it on every track. The preoccupation with weed outshines all others, and surpasses its status as a hip-hop cliché and becomes an obsession which dominates virtually all of his lyrical content one way or another.
Having said this, 'When I'm Gone' is a surprisingly insightful opening to the album. Khalifa raps about the inevitable decline of his star, that his expensive lifestyle won't be able to last forever, promoting the simple maxim of "living for the moment". 'Wake Up' continues this self-reflection, and the desire to never leave its comforting bubble. This injection of character and intrigue on top of a breezy, summertime beat means that it is one of the few standout tracks on the album, working sadly as more of a saving grace than a highlight.
'Roll Up' features tacky synths from the start and develops into a cheesy beachside ballad that wouldn't look out of place on a Nelly LP. 'No Sleep' is Asher Roth's 'I Love College' combined with an autotuned chorus that sounds eerily similar to Mark Hoppus' voice. Songs like 'Hopes and Dreams' lack any kind of wit and don't seem to want to aspire to anything higher than a bog-standard album track, while 'Fly Solo' is posing as a B.O.B/ Bruno Mars b-side. It's difficult to shrug off the feeling that Khalifa seems content with his US number one and believes that his work is already done.
So is pop rap really the way for Khalifa to go? He has created a paean to living the hedonistic, care-free high life that certainly suits his inherently catchy style and delivery, yet with this outlook comes limited scope for imagination or ambition. His conversational and laid back flow is appealing enough; he knows what he's good at and doesn't choose to venture down the road of social politics or intricate rhyme patterns displayed by, say, Doom or Mos Def. Yet the downside of this means that there is a distinct lack of memorable or engaging verses on Rolling Papers as a whole, leaving it spectacularly bland.
Why is this? For a start, the record seems to be tripping over its own heels in trying to be chart-friendly and appeal to the same people that lapped up anything released by Young Money last year, but ends up just sounding too trite and shallow.
Tellingly, Stargate (named producers here) have previously worked for Ne-Yo and Rihanna, which suggests that Khalifa is somewhat forcedly walking a tightrope between pop rap and R'n'B, one crossed on such tracks as 'Top Floor'. This is not just a slight on Wiz Khalifa but the limiting nature of the record industry; how a rapper has to saturate his sound to a profound level of mediocrity in order to be commercially safe and radio-friendly. Tha Carter IV can't come soon enough.